Good company on the street, as the Chinese say goes, is the shortest route to a destination. However, when it comes to watching and studying wildlife, I have found that it is advisable not to have company at all.
Experience has taught me that one of the key benefits of walking alone through Munnar’s tea fields is being able to spy on wildlife unseen and unhindered – a favorite pastime of mine that has proven to be quite educational over the years and enriched mine Knowledge of wildlife. When there is company, there is inevitable chatter that will make Timider species of wildlife flee. More importantly, concentration is rarely focused.
One evening a few years ago, while strolling alone through a tea field, I spotted a leopard cat walking gently along the grassy path about 50 feet below me. Hoping to take a closer look, I spontaneously got up on all fours and began to secretly follow him. I soon discovered that it was a Malabar Whistling Thrush that was searching and hopping far in front of it. In fact, the cat chased the bird so intensely that it didn’t realize it was being chased!
Once, when it had crawled close enough, the predator ducked low as if to pounce, then changed his mind and froze like a stone, keeping its gaze fixed on its prey the whole time. I pushed forward and managed to get within about 20 feet of it with the cover of the tea bushes flanking the winding path. Then an invisible dry twig snapped crisply under my knee. The leopard cat whirled around and its wild eyes widened in apparent disbelief to find me so close. Then it was gone in a split second after jumping agile into the protective cover of the tea bushes.
The leopard cat (‘Prionailurus bengalensis’) derives its name from its leopard-like coloration, although it is only a dwarf compared to its more familiar appearance. In fact, it is more likely that it is a young leopard cub. It is a forest and plantation inhabitant and is found all over India and Southeast Asia. It has a yellowish-brown fur that is heavily marked with dark spots and stripes and is 45 to 75 cm in length, with the exception of its 25-35 cm long tail. It’s about the size of a house cat, but slimmer and has longer legs. The tiger is believed to share a common trait with the tiger and use its feces and urine to mark its territory.
As an agile climber, the leopard cat is tree-like to a certain extent in its habits. It rests in trees (and sometimes hunts from them and secretly ambushes careless prey that passes beneath it), but also seeks protection in dense, thorny undergrowth on the ground. One evening I spotted one in a silver oak on a tea field. Apparently it was chasing the jungle fowl feeding among the tea bushes – I could hear the rustling made by the poultry “scratching” the ground for maggots with their feet. When the cat saw me, it froze, then climbed higher up the tree and hid in the thick of the leaves. After satisfying my curiosity and not wanting to interfere with dinner, I walked on quietly, being careful not to disturb the unsuspecting jungle fowl.
The leopard cat is naturally carnivorous and lives on a wide variety of small prey including mammals, lizards, amphibians, and birds. Rats and mice make up a large part of their diet. As an experienced hunter, he sends his prey with a quick jump and bite that mostly immobilizes them. In contrast to the house cat, the leopard cat does not play or play with its prey. it sticks it with its claws until it is dead. It is believed that this could be due to the relatively high proportion of birds in its diet, which when released are more likely than rodents to escape.
The leopard cat is basically a crepuscular and nocturnal hunter also known to hunt domestic fowl, which is much easier to kill than the elusive jungle fowl. This has led to it being viewed as a pest and killed by poultry farmers in retaliation.
The leopard cat is known to breed in the spring. The gestation period is around 60-70 days with a litter of 2 to 4 young, usually born in a hollow tree trunk, crevice or cave. The cat is known to breed and live in captivity for up to 13 years.
I once came across the mutilated fur of a leopard cat in a British planter bungalow in Munnar. He had a fascinating story to tell. The cat had strayed into his garden and was immediately followed and bred by his watchful Labrador. Just when the intruder thought it was safely out of the dog’s reach, two tomcats from a nearby workers’ colony tuned in. A violent and high-pitched brawl followed, in which the leopard cat was fatally injured. Perhaps it could have taken one attacker successfully, said the planter, but two turned out to be too much for that. After witnessing the whole bloody drama, he had retrieved the carcass and tried his amateur preparation skills on it.
Since the leopard cat is believed to be widespread in India and Southeast Asia, the IUCN has classified its conservation status as “Least Concern”. However, continued habitat loss and poaching pose threats to cats in certain parts of India and in other countries. The fur and meat trade had previously taken a heavy toll on the population, mainly China and Japan. The commercial exploitation of his fur was particularly strong in China. Between 1955 and 1981, the average number of pelts exported per year is believed to be 1.50,000. China officially stopped exporting leopard cat fur in 1993.
However, there are still fears that the leopard cat will be exploited commercially for its fur and meat. In the commercial fur trade, Japan – the main consumer of its fur in Asia – imports up to 50,000 hides a year. And now the leopard cat’s suffering has been added to a new dimension: its increasing popularity as a pet has apparently led to a secret but flourishing pet trade (largely based on trapping) with suspected international repercussions. It is also believed that experiments are being conducted illegally to cross the leopard cat with its domestic counterpart in an attempt to produce a new strain of domestic animals. This, in due course, will inevitably lead to an erosion of the bloodline and the clear identity of the former.
One can only hope that one cat’s fabled nine lives will save this cuddly and furry feral cat from being completely wiped out. On a more realistic level, however, we need to learn to appreciate and appreciate the rich (but rapidly declining) biodiversity that hosts planet earth – before it’s too late.